Audiences – a vital ingredient

Theatre does not exist without an audience.  Live performance of any kind is only really performance if it is being watched – if not, then it might as well be a rehearsal, a game or a private jam session.  This is not simply due to the ego of those acting, singing or dancing, but it is a result of the vital role that audiences play. 

At any theatrical performance, the audience can enhance or detract from the production on offer.  Mobile phones, flash photography and random talking can be distracting (sometimes dangerous) for the cast and irritating for fellow theatregoers.  A badly timed noise can break the spell in a tense or moving moment, puncturing the suspension of disbelief that has been built up and reminding everyone that they are, after all, watching people pretending to be other people in a small, dark, warm building with mildly uncomfortable seats. 

For the actor, the response of the audience can be vital.  In a comedy, a few laughs here and there help the cast know that they’re doing their job, or if they are particularly skilled comics, then they can see which lines and gags are hitting home the best and try to tailor their performance to the particular audience to a small degree.  In a straight play, then the actor can draw energy from a hushed auditorium fully engaged with their every word and movement.  When the audience is on your side, you can practically reach out and touch it, so palpable is the sense of common purpose and shared engagement in the moment.  Performance can create a symbiosis where those on the stage and those watching begin to feed off each other – the more the audience enters in, the more drive the actor or musician has to create their music, or character, or whatever they’re creating, and this drives the audience – and so forth.  The right audience can somehow lift a performance from ‘good’ to ‘great’ (sadly, a mediocre performance is hard to rescue under any circumstances, with even the most favourable audience behind it).

Although this is always true, it is something that I noticed more acutely during my Aladdin experience earlier in the year, as the audience is essentially one of the characters in pantomime – they have lines to say and a crucial part to play in the proceedings.  The villain must be booed and hissed.  The dame and the audience friend must be laughed at.  The puns must be groaned at.  At the appropriate moments, phrases such as “it’s behind you”, “oh no, he shouldn’t” and (in the case of Aladdin) “rub the lamp!” really must be shouted, otherwise the characters will have no idea what to do…  Well, they’d get there eventually, but part of the joy of panto is audience investment in the situation.  When the audience really throws itself into a pantomime, it becomes a joyous collaboration, and those people who play characters which interact with the ‘boys and girls’ step their energy levels up further and further, carried along by the enthusiasm in the auditorium, investing a level of energy that is simply impossible to sustain if nothing is flowing back towards the stage.  Even in shows where the audience isn’t directly involved, a good response can create an electric atmosphere that is utterly intoxicating for all involved.

Sometimes it’s hard.  I have definitely been to see shows where I’m the only one laughing at the jokes, and that gradually saps my ability to enter into the spirit of things.  The audience is composed of individuals, but as one of the characters in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet points out, they become a ‘Big Black Giant’ defined by the mood of the majority of the audience:

A big black giant who looks and listens
With thousands of eyes and ears,
A big black mass of love and pity
And troubles and hopes and fears,
And ev’ry night the mixture’s diff’rent,
Altho’ it may look the same.
To feel his way with ev’ry mixture
Is part of the actor’s game.

One night it’s a laughing giant;
Another night a weeping giant.
One night it’s a coughing giant;
Another night a sleeping giant.

If there are a few enthusiastic people, but most are tired, then the tiredness will overcome the enthusiasm, and give the actors the impression that nobody is really out there in the dark.  By the end of the show, the best thing the formerly-enthusiastic theatregoers can do is applaud particularly loudly, as if to prove that there were some people who cared, who enjoyed it, even if the rest of those spoilsports smothered them.

Whether or not audiences have specific functions to perform, they truly are vital.  Just as I wouldn’t want to attend the theatre without their being any actors, I wouldn’t want to act without an audience.  The collaboration between audience and actor creates a special kind of shared magic that you can’t match anywhere else.

Ev’ry night you fight the giant
And maybe if you win,
You send him out a nicer giant,
Than he was when he came in…

And maybe, just maybe, the big black giant can change the actors as well.  Whatever the nature of the interaction, audiences really are a vital ingredient, and its easy to forget that sometimes.  Which, when you think about it, is odd.

    • zeusiswatching
    • August 4th, 2009

    My wife and I took in a play at my alma mater last year. It was a production of Moliere’s Tartuffe.

    The actors clearly enjoyed this play. They loved playing the characters, they loved the humor and the “moral of the story.” I am pleased to say that the audience was lively, interested, and I believe contributed further to the actors’ enthusiasm for the play.

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